Regular readers may remember that we’ve been to Maryport a couple of times before on this blog: the first time mostly to admire a very battered old tombstone and the second time to report that more digging was scheduled for the fort. The excavators were hoping to find out more about the splendid altars to Jupiter on display (along with that old tombstone) in the Senhouse Museum.
Some of these altars are in such fine condition that they might almost have been cut last week. Their miraculous preservation is the result of having spent most of their lives underground, safely buried by the Romans themselves. Nobody knew exactly why or when, but it was clear that they had been placed there with some degree of care. It brought a moving scene to mind – proud standards flapping in the sea breezes off the Solway, the troops all dressed in their best, lined up for an annual ritual of burial and sacrifice on a new altar presided over by the Commanding Officer. Or perhaps a unit ordered to close down the fort that had once been their home, hurrying to bury the sacred altars lest they be despoiled by the locals, and marching away never to return.
Well, they’ve dug. And as anyone who’s been following the story will now know, the ‘sacred burial’ theory has been completely overturned. According to the excavators’ final update, “the Maryport pits containing complete altars are, in fact, massive post-pits in which the altars have been used simply as packing. There was no ritual deposition of these stones – when buried they were simply convenient foundation packing material.”
You can read the whole of the excavators’ update here.* It’s a fascinating insight into how a theory that had seemed so plausible – not to mention romantic – was overturned by a closer look at the evidence. It’s also a reminder that our sometimes sweeping assertions about ‘Roman Britain’ cover a period of several hundred years. To one Roman building crew, the Jupiter who had been all-powerful to their predecessors was simply a handy source of stone.
Until, of course, somebody comes along with another explanation.
Meanwhile I’m mightily glad I haven’t written a ritual-burial scene into any of the novels.
*There’s a good article in October’s ‘Current Archaeology’ too.
Some of us have never quite got to grips with Twitter, but if you have, here’s a chance to write alongside some top authors:
Launching on 14 September 2011 for 5 consecutive weeks, Simon Brett, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, Ian Rankin and Sarah Waters will lead a short story tweetathon in which authors and tweeters will collaborate to write a short story in 670 characters.
This is the brainchild of the Society of Authors, and it’s part of their campaign to mark (and if possible, reverse) the decline in broadcast time the BBC are giving to short stories. You can find out more here. Meanwhile I’m off to my very underused Twitter account, to see if I can work out how to spread the word.
Lots of good things happening in Lichfield in the first week of October. The lineup for this year’s literature festival is here and includes Adam Hart-Davis, Sophie Hannah, Douglas Hurd, Val McDermid, Eleanor Bron, Lionel Blue, and Colin Dexter. There is also, in the lower right-hand corner of the webpage, a writer of mysteries set in Roman Britain. I’m looking forward to visiting Lichfield Library on the afternoon of Saturday 8th October to talk about writing historical fiction.
I’m also hoping to slip into a talk earlier in the day about the language of the much-loved King James Bible. In preparation I’ve been enjoying a delightful diversion from the many things on today’s ‘urgent’ list – an online ‘Shakespeare or Bible’ quiz. Since procrastination loves company, here‘s the link.
I’ve been trying to think of something clever and entertaining to say about the Greenbelt Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse, but it was just… too big. Too exhuberant. Too thought-provoking, and too gloriously diverse to pull together in a few words. (Which is a poor show for someone who calls herself a writer, I know.) At times it was also too wet and too cold, but the wellies came out, the banners fluttered bravely over the tents up on the camping fields, and the atmosphere was as warm as ever.
Thank you to everyone who came to the events I was involved in. You made both sessions a pleasure and besides, it would have been very lonely without you. Especial thanks to the kind folk who chipped in with plenty of intelligent comments and questions at the end, thus saving us all from a potentially embarrassing silence. In fact halfway through the ‘Lure of Crime Fiction’ talk it was looking as though it would also be a very long silence.
Something strange happens to time when you stand up in front of people who are expecting you to say something sensible. Despite several rehearsals, the plentiful material I’d prepared shot past at fearful speed while my watch (carefully set out on the lectern so I didn’t have to consult my wrist, as if even I was wishing I was somewhere else) seemed to have stopped. Then, strangely, I slowed down and the watch went faster.
Goodness knows what the patient listeners were actually receiving on the other side of this time-warp, but as far as I could discern, nobody fell asleep despite it being the end of a very long weekend. For that, and for much else, I am enormously grateful.